University of Vermont

To Walk as a Poet

UVM Professor Wins Guggenheim Fellowship

Major Jackson
Major Jackson reads at Robert Mondavi Winery. (Photo: Mary Shea)

“I’m always thinking about writing,” says Major Jackson, poet and Richard Dennis Green and Gold Professor of English. “I’m always making connections or making metaphors or seeing images in my head.” So it was on April 15, final reckoning day with the unambiguously unbeguiling Form 1040.

Suddenly he recalled another deadline, a commissioned poem about a painting from a favorite artist, Romare Bearden. He’s chosen Calypso’s Magical Garden – Calypso the nymph in Greek mythology, the seductress who held Odysseus hostage on her island, the enchantress who lured Jackson back into his world of words. “It’s bad,” his new poem begins, “when a man doesn’t own even his dreams/a faint head full of the scent of a woman…”

That’s what tax extensions are for.

It wasn’t his accounting skills, of course, that won Jackson a 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship, one of the most prestigious honors granted to “midcareer” academics and artists who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications each year and awards approximately 200 fellowships.

Established in 1925 by former United States Senator and Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, in memory of their seventeen-year-old son who died in 1922, the foundation has sought to "add to the educational, literary, artistic, and scientific power of this country, and also to provide for the cause of better international understanding."

Jackson is the author of three collections of poetry: Holding Company, Hoops and Leaving Saturn, which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He has published poems and essays in periodicals including AGNI, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The New Yorker and Tin House. His work has been included in Best American Poetry (2004, 2011) and Best of the Best American Poetry. Poetry editor of the Harvard Review, Jackson, among other honors, has been a recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award.

“It is good to follow in the long tradition of poets I've admired who have also been awarded a Guggenheim,” he says. “It is fortifying and affirming.

Jackson’s grant proposal is to pursue the intriguing story of Edmonia Lewis, an African American woman who studied at Oberlin before the Civil War, stood trial for the alleged poisoning of her roommates, was acquitted and went on to become an internationally acclaimed sculptor, living most of her life in Rome. It’s a story with many twists and unknowns, of a woman who, in many ways, transcended her race given the time in which she lived, and in others, even in a progressive place like Oberlin, could not.

“She didn’t respect the boundaries between races,” Jackson says, and she was kidnapped, brutally beaten and left in a field after she was accused. Her lawyer, John Mercer Langston – great uncle of the poet Langston Hughes – provides the primary source for her story. Jackson’s ambition is to write a verse play about her trial, placed within history yet using modern techniques to appeal to a contemporary audience.

‘Writing in miniatures’

Jackson has longed used art metaphors to talk about poetry, particularly for his students. In class before workshopping their poems – he assigns one a week, which he admits is intense – Jackson compares the luxury of prose writers working on a large canvas to the constraints on poets, writing in miniatures where every stroke has weight.

Four years ago he started The Painted Word poetry series in which he brings established and emerging poets to read at the Fleming Museum once a month. While these are events open to everyone, Jackson is driven by the desire to give students the opportunity to come in close contact with working poets. This spring’s series will wrap up, however, with the first annual student reading on Wednesday, April 24 at 6 p.m. “The students really do astound me with their poems every semester,” he says. “I could have built the whole series around their work.”

Jackson is inspired both to nurture his students as poets and also to be part of the broad conversation about poetry in and outside of the academy: “I want to help shape the dialogue particularly around poetry and race and our collective American literary inheritance.” 

But with or without Calypso’s call, Jackson’s art is who he is, above publishing books and winning prizes. Writing, he says, is the only way he lives and grows in the world. Experiences filter through his imagination and demand interpretation. “That’s the pressure,” he says. “Not the pressure of a career or to produce but to know that my existence is so tied with how I process it through this thing called the poem… I walk it.”